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The Whispering of Wood − Ernen’s Precious Legacy

Wood, if you stop to think of it, has been man’s best friend in the world. It held him in his cradle, went to war as the gunstock in his hand, was the frame of the bed he came to rejoicing, the log upon his hearth when he was cold, and will make him his last long home. It was the murmuring bough above his childhood play, and the roof over the first house he called his own, … the forest where he seeks sanctuary from a stony world.”
― Donald Culross Peattie

Along with its stellar reputation as Musikdorf − world-class musical events staged in the summer season, − the village of Ernen is best known for its unusually rich legacy of 15th to 18th century wooden houses. As one of the few Walliser towns that was spared widespread destruction by war or fire, and because the houses’ facades are typically marked with their dates of construction, Ernen’s is an insightful story about the growth and development of a cohesive alpine community.

The earliest so-called “Heiden” (heathen) houses were built in the area near the church, and down along the Goms valley access. In the early 16th century, however, construction in the village expanded in the direction of the “Hengert,” (the Walliser word “hengerte” meaning to chat, to gossip), which we know today as the “Dorfplatz.” But it wasn’t until the 18th century that the imposing “Zendenrathaus” was built there as a seat of justice in the valley, and the village square took on the striking profile it has today.

In the 1860s, the building of the valley road over Fiesch put an end to house construction in Ernen for almost 90 years, and the village wasn’t party to the nascent tourism business enjoyed by the nearby communities of Fiesch and Binn. After World War II, however, as the construction of peripheral chalets began, the village fathers had the foresight to establish a Ortsbildplege (1950), assuring care and maintenance of Ernen’s historic wooden architecture that has preserved the integrity of the village ever since. Thanks to those efforts, Ernen was the worthy 1979 recipient of the Wakker Prize, an honor awarded annually by the Swiss Heritage Society to a municipality in Switzerland for the development and preservation of its architectural heritage.

The beauty of the many historic buildings speaks for itself. But by way of modest tribute, here are photographic details of wooden constructions in Ernen that seemed, to me, to reflect a community-minded and hardworking alpine people whose decoration speaks of simple beauty. For it’s to them, the Erner, that I am indebted for this “sanctuary from a stony world.”

Ernen, Sunday, 23 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet

Architectural history details were translated from entries in the Landschaftspark Binntal’s informative booklet, “Dorfrundgang und Kulturgüter Ernen.” Copies are available at the Tourist Office at no charge or can be downloaded here.

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